Winning in March

Cleveland Browns, NFL, NFL Free Agency

Whether they’re declared the winners of free agency after the first week, the Cleveland Browns and new general manager Andrew Berry staked their claim to yet another off-season champions trophy. Berry attacked three positions of weakness, signing two of the top 15 players available in tight end Austin Hooper (4 years, 42 million) and right tackle Jack Conklin (3 years 42 million). Case Keenum (3 years, 18 million) signed to back up Baker Mayfield, then they acquired fullback Andy Janovich for a 2021 seventh round pick, sent to Denver. The big, early moves were upgrades to the offense, a nod to new head coach/offensive genius Kevin Stefanski and franchise QB Mayfield. Headlines in March are nice, but did the Browns get better?

Let’s start with Hooper. As with most first day free agent signings, this was an overpay. Hooper is now the highest paid tight end in the league. He isn’t George Kittle or Travis Kelce, but he has made two straight Pro Bowls and is a force down the seams in the middle of the field. He’ll drag linebackers with him, allowing Jarvis Landry space on crossing patterns and Odell Beckham one-on-one coverage on the outside. Stefanski was offensive coordinator in Minnesota for just one year and leaned on two tight end sets. 56% of Minnesota’s plays occurred out of multiple tight end formations, 2nd in the league. Given the dearth of quality tight ends in free agency and the draft, along with the inconsistency of David Njoku, signing Hooper was a necessity. Stefanski’s offense depends on the position; they’ll still need growth from Njoku. Hooper gives the offense reliability, but the large contract points to desperation by Berry and Stefanski.

Though Freddie Kitchens garnered most of the blame for last year’s failures, his offensive line shared the fans’ wrath. Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 23rd in the league. They gave up 2.6 sacks per game (15th) and anchored the 12th best rushing attack (118.8 per game). Not outstanding numbers, yet not the abomination some made them out to be. Enter Jack Conklin. Another upgrade, Conklin is a good, not great, right tackle who will, at worst, improve the gap size for Nick Chubb to run through. PFF ranks him as the 12th best run blocking tackle in the league over the past four seasons. His passing grades, however, aren’t stellar. The 37th ranked pass blocking tackle in the league last season, Conklin is average in pass protection. He’ll need help in some one-on-one match-ups, particularly against division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh, another reason for the need to upgrade the tight end position.

Throw in the trade for Janovich, along with the 2nd round tender given to Kareem Hunt, guaranteeing he’ll be with the team next year, and it’s obvious the new Browns regime wants to run the ball. Stefanski has served under run-first dictator Mike Zimmer in Minnesota and had running game guru Gary Kubiak looking over his shoulder in 2019. For those worrying about analytics taking over in Cleveland, this isn’t it. The numbers say the only down and distance where it’s more beneficial to run than pass is 3rd and 1. Playing a fullback and using two tight ends condenses the field, allowing teams to better control Landry and Beckham. Teams that run the ball don’t trust their quarterback (see the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo). What do Berry and Stefanski think of Baker Mayfield?

Which brings us to the Case Keenum signing. The Browns needed a backup quarterback. Keenum’s one successful NFL season occurred in Minnesota in 2017 with Stefanski as his quarterback coach, making this signing inevitable. Keenum knows the offense, and can step in and lead if Mayfield gets injured. What if Baker struggles, however? Imagine a 1-3 start, and Mayfield swimming against the current as he was last year. This coaching staff and front office didn’t draft Baker Mayfield. He has two years left on his rookie deal; teams normally try to do extensions one year before contracts expire. If Baker doesn’t pop this season, think Andrew Berry wants to hand out a 35-40 million dollar contract to an average quarterback next off-season?

On defense, the Browns filled holes with linebacker B.J. Goodson, safety Karl Joseph, and defensive tackle Andrew Billings. Joseph is a former 1st round pick who has battled injuries. The weakness at the position in Cleveland’s secondary all but guarantees him a starting spot; he, Sheldrick Redwine, and J.T. Hassell are the only safeties on the roster. Billings adds depth behind Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi, while Goodson will compete for time with last year’s rookies Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki.

The defensive signings are underwhelming. Expecting anything other than replacement-level production is foolhardy. The loss of Joe Schobert, last year’s QB on defense, hurts, but the contract he signed in Jacksonville (5 years, 53.75 million) was exorbitant. The front four remains strong; behind them, however, there are questions. Denzel Ward struggled overall and with injuries after a Pro Bowl rookie year. Greedy Williams was just okay. The holes at safety are glaring. Mack Wilson showed promise, but no other linebackers on the roster affected games in 2019. The front office must go heavy on defense during next month’s draft. Cleveland’s brass may want to pound the running game, but that strategy works only with a top 5-10 defense. Unless the defensive line is as dominate as San Francisco’s last year, this approach won’t work.

The Whip Around

1.The Tom Brady signing in Tampa is a shock. the offensive weapons are plentiful at receiver and tight end, and Tampa’s offensive line ranked 7th a year ago, according to PFF. Shaq Barrett led the league with 19.5 sacks. There’s talent on Florida’s west coast, but is a 43-year-old Brady the answer? Jameis Winston stockpiled yards, touchdowns, and interceptions last season; its doubtful Brady will throw for anywhere near the 5109 yards, or the 30 picks, Winston tossed. Bruce Arians’ belief must be that fewer turnovers will equal more wins. Only two teams gave up more points than the Bucs last year, however. Tampa will make for an interesting watch, and we’ll get a heavy dose of them in prime time. I’ll bet the Patriots and Belichick win more games, though.

2. With Brady’s departure from New England, Buffalo sees an opportunity. Josh Allen progressed last year, minus the mess he made in their playoff loss to Houston. Devin Singletary averaged 5.1 yards a carry as a rookie, John Brown and Cole Beasley combined for 139 catches and over 1800 yards, and the defense ranked only behind New England’s in points allowed. Enter Stefon Diggs. Trading away a 1st, 5th, 6th, and 2021 4th for Diggs was the ultimate win-now move for a franchise sharing a division with the Brady-less Patriots, the going nowhere Jets, and the rebuilding Dolphins. Diggs is a home run hitter and Allen’s arm, though inaccurate, is strong enough to sling it to him deep. The Chiefs and Ravens make a Super Bowl run unlikely, but a home playoff game in snowy Buffalo isn’t out of the question.

3. What is Bill O’Brien doing in Houston? If DeAndre Hopkins isn’t the best wideout in the league, he’s in the top three. A second rounder and David Johnson for Hopkins? Look what Buffalo gave for Diggs, above. This is unconscionable. No one should be coaching and general managing an NFL franchise; O’Brien is proving that point in real time. With J. J. Watt suffering injuries yearly, Deshaun Watson must watch while Houston’s talent gets pillaged by the rest of the league. Watson is a top five quarterback in the league on a rookie deal. Teams with an asset that large are in Super Bowl or bust mode. O’Brien has wasted Houston’s opportunity to strike before their QB bill comes due. Stripped for parts now, what will the franchise look like after paying $40 million per to Watson?

4. The Rams released Todd Gurley, and Melvin Gordon can’t find a job. It sucks to be an NFL running back these days. Facts are facts, however, and teams don’t have to pay, in the form of top draft picks or high dollar contracts, to get production from the position. In 2017, Gurley and Gordon ranked 2nd and 7th in the league in rushing yards. Two years later, both are unwanted (Gurley signed a 1 year deal with his hometown Falcons on Friday). Passing is king in the NFL. Few teams win by running the ball. Those that do don’t have a workhorse running back (see San Francisco and Baltimore). Nick Chubb, beware. He has two years left on his rookie deal, then will try to negotiate a new contract with an analytics heavy front office that didn’t draft him. It would shock me (SHOCK!) if Andrew Berry gave a running back 12-15 million per year, regardless of Chubb’s production over the next two years.

5. Why are the Bears giving Jimmy Graham 16 million over 2 years? He’ll be 34 next year and has averaged 46 catches and 2.5 touchdowns with Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball over the last two seasons while missing 10 games. Nick Foles too? Bears fans, get ready for a prime slot in the 2021 draft.

6. Chargers fans will join them. After the departure of Philip Rivers to Indianapolis, L.A. has announced they’ll ride with Tyrod Taylor instead of pursuing Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, or any other quarterback on the market. If nothing else, Newton puts asses in the seats of the new SoFi Stadium the Chargers are sharing with the Rams. Stars sell in L.A., right? Nothing like a rebuild for a team in a market already struggling to attract fans. Expect a Keenan Allen trade demand any time.

7. Good for Byron Jones, one of the most consistent corners in the league, for getting his money in Miami. 5 years 82 million, with 40 mil guaranteed over the first two years. No one will complain about living in Miami with that much cash, but don’t expect much action in January.

8. The Ravens signed Michael Brockers to a 3 year, 30 million dollar deal after trading a fifth round pick for Pro Bowler Calais Campbell. The hell? This time a year ago, Baltimore looked vulnerable. They had contemplated firing John Harbaugh and a second year running quarterback was being handed the reins. Now, they’re coming off a 14-2 season, have the league MVP, and just rebuilt their defensive line into one of the best in the league. The rest of the AFC North teams are playing for one of the three wild card spots.

 

Browns poised for a turnaround….next week

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL, Tom Brady

No matter how optimistic about the season, few Browns fans looked at Week 8 and predicted a win. With the season in flux, @New England this week is dispiriting. In need of a confidence boost off the bye week, no game has seemed more like a loss going in.

The Patriots have been surgical this season; only one game they’ve played has finished within two touchdowns. The defense has given up three touchdowns all year. They’ve scored at least 30 each week, save for Week 4 against Buffalo, the third-ranked D in the league. Average for most of the regular season last year, this squad is hell bent on making a statement in 2019.


For the Browns to have any shot, they must pressure Tom Brady without blitzing. Cleveland’s front four was built for this situation. According to football outsiders, the defense ranks fifth in the league in adjusted sack rate, at 8.5%, and ninth in sacks with 19. The Pats’ starting center, David Andrews, and left tackle, Isaiah Wynn, are on injured reserve. Rob Gronkowski, known for spectacular catches and violent collisions with defensive backs, was an exceptional blocker, but retired before the season.


Though sporadic to this point in the season, the defensive line must dominate on Sunday. The few occasions during his career when Brady has struggled have all occurred when he’s faced heavy pressure. Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi, and Olivier Vernon must apply heat. If the Browns have to blitz, Brady will slice the secondary apart. Sending extra defenders will allow him to exploit mismatches the blitz creates.


Still, Brady will be hard to bring down. Eighth in the league in shortest time to throw, at 2.58 seconds according to Next Gen stats, Brady is used to throwing quick. His receivers will run quick routes, designed to get them in space. James White will be active in the passing game. Brady uses his running backs as well as any quarterback in the game’s history. Will Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams return this week? They need their speed and coverage skills to contend with this offense.


New England’s first drive on Monday Night against the Jets was a masterpiece, lasting 16 plays and including everyone on offense. The Browns defense cannot be passive. If they cannot make Tom Brady uncomfortable, game over.


Offensively Baker Mayfield is in for a struggle. The New England defense is historic. First in points allowed, yards, and turnovers forced, it’s hard to foresee any success from the offense. To hang with the champs, the Browns cannot turn it over. As bad as the offense has been, turnovers have proved to be the biggest issue. They moved the ball at will against Seattle, only to give the ball to the Seahawks four times. Threatening to get back into the game against the Niners, Antonio Callaway dropped a sure touchdown that was picked off. The Titan game came unglued when Mayfield threw three picks in the fourth quarter. If they can hold on to the ball, the offense has shown potential.


While watching the Pats offense, Baker Mayfield should study Brady’s footwork in the pocket. Never hurried, even in the face of pressure, his movement to create extra tenths of seconds to throw is doctorate level stuff. He’s the best in the game’s history at avoiding the rush and stepping up to find receivers. Pocket presence separates the bad quarterbacks from the good. Above all else, Baker must improve in this area if the Browns are to turn this season around.

Feels pressure….steps up and delivers the ball


The only chance the Browns have Sunday is for a low-scoring affair. Chew clock with Nick Chubb, avoid turnovers, and pressure Brady all afternoon. An 80s throwback game is their path to victory.

The Whip Around

1. Pete Carroll’s risk averse way of coaching is doing his team zero favors. Settling for field goals and punting on the defense’s side of the field is playing into his opponents’ hands. The best weapon in the league and MVP to this point, Russell Wilson, is Seattle’s path to victories. Their defense is below average. It cannot withstand the pressure Carroll’s decisions are putting on them. Give it to Russ instead.

2. What’s wrong with the Eagles? An embarrassing beat down at the hands of an average Cowboys team should have alarms sounding in Philadelphia. Although they’re still missing DeSean Jackson, the offense needs to chuck it. 12th in the league in run percentage, this is way too high for a Carson Wentz led team, regardless of wide receiver injuries. Jordan Howard is average, and Miles Sanders is an inconsistent rookie. Put the game in the hands of your former MVP candidate.

3. Aaron Rodgers is heating up. Accounting for five touchdowns against the Raiders, Rodgers’ slow start to the season is history. Able to rely on a strong defense and a stout running game, the Pack looks like a contender. NFC teams would be wise to wrestle home field advantage away from the Packers. January games in Green Bay against that defense won’t end well.

4. While hoping to tread water in Drew Brees’ absence, the Saints have been one-legged skiing. Teddy Bridgewater has been what the doctor ordered, completing almost 68% of his passes while throwing only two picks. Another team historically defensively challenged, New Orleans is dominating games on both sides of the ball unlike anyone outside of New England. The culture Sean Payton has built in Louisiana, for a franchise as bad as any in the league before they hired him, is awe-inspiring. After last year’s gruesome ending, a Saints Super Bowl title would be the icing on the cake.

5. Though Jared Goff has struggled, don’t forget about the Rams. With last week’s trade for Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles pairs the game’s best corner with Aaron Donald. With Dante Fowler Jr. submitting three sacks on Sunday, no team possesses star power on defense like L.A. Can Sean McVay devise a scheme to limit Goff’s errors? Will he survive relying on his defense to win games?

6. Andy Dalton with the toss of the year. Nice look, Red Rocket.

7. Kirk Cousins is a dark horse MVP candidate? Things are trending upward in Minnesota again, what with the QB playing nice with wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs again after some passive aggressive comments from each earlier in the season. Washington is in town for a hum drum Thursday Night game, cementing another week of harmony in the Land of the Lakes. The rubber hits the road after, with games against Kansas City, Dallas, Denver, and Seattle on the horizon. Will things look as rosy in a month?

8. Chicago has a Mitchell Trubisky problem. Strong defensively with perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack and Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara at the corners, the offense remains in neutral. Though short on talent around him, Trubisky is struggling, missing receivers and looking lost in Matt Nagy’s offense. How long will the Bears remain patient with him? A team built to win now and coming off an NFC North title a year ago, Chicago wants to avoid getting on the QB merry-go-round again, but may have no choice.

9. Eric Ebron’s stunning touchdown catch was so spectacular it never crossed announcer Greg Gumbel or Trent Green’s mind that he got both feet down in bounds. A beauty.

10. If Washington plays Dwayne Haskins again this year, he should sue for malpractice. Star left tackle Trent Williams demanded a trade during mini-camp and has yet to show up to the team. 34-year-old Adrian Peterson is their best offensive player, and he’s hurt. At least Miami has admitted they’re tanking.

Live look in Washington


Ownership in Washington is clueless. Ineptitude of this magnitude funnels from the top. Twenty years of horrible coaching hires and free agent signings litter Dan Snyder’s tenure as owner. He’s sued season ticket holders and demanded a newspaper to fire a writer he didn’t like. If not for the Browns, his team would’ve been the laughingstock of the NFL during the last decade. Shame on Snyder for destroying a once proud franchise.

The Heart of Jarvis

Cleveland Browns, Jarvis landry, NFL

The fans received their first glimpse of Jarvis Landry as a leader last year on HBO’s Hard Knocks. The newly acquired receiver, fed up early in training camp with the practice habits of his teammates, went on a F-bomb laced tirade in a position meeting, letting them know the shoddy habits built during the previous seasons were no longer acceptable. It was a tongue lashing long overdue.


Landry is the heart and soul of this club. Every team needs a leader, a respected veteran who commands attention and forces others to do things the right way. Jarvis wants to win; you can see it in his eyes and feel it in his words. He knows the opportunity that exists and refuses to let his teammates take it for granted. He is what champions are made of.


Because of his slow start to the season and being overshadowed by Odell Beckham, the importance of Landry was forgotten. No longer. Jarvis’ leadership shone on Sunday, alongside his extreme talent. The Browns had every opportunity to fold in Baltimore. Playing in a stadium they had won only four times in their history and facing the heat of the national media for unmet expectations, the young Browns needed guidance. Jarvis Landry led the way.

John Dorsey has made excellent moves since taking over as general manager of the Browns, yet, other than the drafting of Baker, none have been as important as the Landry trade. Acquired from the Dolphins for a 4th and 7th round pick, he has forced the organization to shed their loser’s habits. The stench of 1-31 doesn’t disappear by firing a coach or replacing front office members. Winning requires strong habits, work ethic, and discipline. Beyond his extraordinary talent, Jarvis Landry has instilled these qualities in his teammates.

Sunday marked the first time in the 2019 season the team looked as the fans expected. The Baker Mayfield from 2018 returned, throwing darts, controlling the offense, and playing with confidence. Nick Chubb dissected the Ravens as few running backs have. Twenty rushes for 165 yards and three touchdowns are staggering numbers to hang in Baltimore. Ricky Seals-Jones was a welcome addition to the game plan this week. A wide receiver in college, the tight end’s large frame and speed makes him a tough cover for opposing linebackers. With David Njoku out until at least Week 11, Seals-Jones provides a dangerous safety valve for Mayfield. Given Njoku’s tendency to catch a case of the drops, Seals-Jones may be an upgrade.


The defense, for the third week in a row, was outstanding. The strength of the team to this point, they’ve allowed the offense time to find a groove. They contained Lamar Jackson, sacking him four times and kept him in the pocket as well as can be expected, forcing him to use his arm. Joe Schobert recorded 17 tackles and a sack; he is pushing Myles Garrett for defensive team MVP to this point in the season. Plagued by missed tackles a year ago, Schobert has recovered and is quarterbacking this defense impressively.


Overlooked by the star power surrounding him, Larry Ogunjobi has been stellar the last two weeks, recording a sack in each game and standing up opposing running backs. A third-round pick in the 2017 draft, he is one of the few picks Sashi Brown got right.


Old Browns teams would have wilted on Sunday, unable to live up to expectations. Landry has preached patience and belief in his teammates, vowing the offense would begin making plays. He led by example Sunday, enforcing his will on the game and the Ravens. Leaders know when to disengage and allow their teammates to learn lessons, just as they know when to grab a game by the throat and take it. Jarvis Landry did that against Baltimore, and it’s the reason the Browns look like the team we expected.

Back under the lights Monday night, the Browns head to San Francisco to face an undefeated 49ers team. Landry sustained a concussion on Sunday, leaving his availability in doubt. Antonio Callaway will return from a four game drug suspension, yet it’s difficult to pinpoint what he will bring to the offense. Showing up out of shape to training camp, Callaway is a fantastic talent but needs to prove he wants and deserves to be a member of this team. If he worked his way into shape during his suspension, there will be a role for him. Rashard Higgins has missed three straight games, and it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll be able to suit up Monday. The Browns receiving core will need Callaway this week, not a comforting thought.


The 49ers have shown a balanced attack on offense. Their two backs, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida, each average over 5 yards per rush, and Jimmy Garoppolo has been solid yet unspectacular returning from injury at quarterback. Their receivers are a below average outfit. George Kittle is their only threat in the passing game. They must account for him and gang tackle after he catches the ball. He will bulldoze defenders if allowed to gain steam in the open field.


San Francisco’s offense destroyed both Cincinnati’s and Pittsburgh’s defenses, though 5 turnovers in the Steeler game kept it close. The Browns defense must continue to pressure the quarterback, forcing Garoppolo to rush himself in the pocket. He will turn the ball over if he’s uncomfortable.


Offensively, Odell Beckham will need over 2 catches and 20 yards Monday night. Despite the numbers, Beckham was an important part of the offense on Sunday, drawing double coverage and opening space for Landry, Ricky Seals-Jones, and Nick Chubb. If Landry and Higgins miss Monday, however, Beckham will need to be more than a decoy. If Baker and the offense have turned the corner, the Browns should begin a winning streak on Monday night.

Beckham(13) draws double coverage, allowing Seals-Jones(83) to get open

The Whip Around

1. Though Tom Brady and the offense have received most of the praise during their Super Bowl ring collection, this year’s defense may carry the team. They gave up their first touchdown of the year on Sunday and have looked dominant each week. Jamie Collins, back with the team after collecting massive checks from the Browns for subpar play, has been rejuvenated, racking up 3.5 sacks and picking off 3 passes. Brady is being carried by the other side of the ball for the first time since his sophomore year in the league.

2. I’m in love with trips bunch, a set in which three wide receivers line up on the same side of the ball, in a triangle formation. The options are infinite. Already at a disadvantage, defensive backs’ chances of covering all three are nil. Week after week, offenses make huge plays out of these sets. Use it more, offensive coordinators.

Trips Bunch
Landry wide open for a 1st down

3. Another week, another referee complaint. The officials are letting turnover plays go, regardless of what they seen the field, so they can review the play. The problem, once they go to the replay booth, is they rarely overturn what is called on the field. Ezekiel Elliott’s fumble on Sunday night football is a perfect example. While a close play, his elbow was down before the ball popped out. Called a fumble on the field however, the refs decided it was too close to overturn. Forget the “not enough evidence to overturn” nonsense. You have two working eyes, presumably. Get the call right, instead of relying on replay.

4. The Eagles victory at Lambeau Field last Thursday night was impressive for Philadelphia. Torching the improved Green Bay defense, Philly pulled within a game of the division leading Cowboys. Carson Wentz rebounded from a spotty performance against Detroit, throwing three touchdowns, and the Eagles rushing game flexed its muscle, accounting for 176 yards. If Wentz can stay healthy, I believe the Eagles are a threat to play in the Super Bowl.

5. Washington, Cincinnati, Miami, and the Jets have made life easy for anyone in a Survival Pool. The garbage these teams litter NFL fields with each week is an abomination. If you combined their rosters, you still could not construct a decent club.

Daniel Snyder right now……Probably

6. The Cowboys took a chance drafting Jaylon Smith at 34 in the 2016 draft after he tore his ACL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl, but it is paying dividends now. He’s a tackling machine, tied for fourth in the league, and is the anchor to a superb Dallas defense. If the Cowboys advance in the playoffs, it will be on the back of Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Robert Quinn, and DeMarcus Lawrence. They will need to carry the water when Dak inevitably struggles in key moments.

7. The hit Marcus Peters took on his pick 6 of Jameis Winston was brutal. No flag thrown? The NFL bends over backward to ensure no quarterback is even looked at cross; flags fly if a receiver brushes pads with a defender. That a defender was crushed, helmet to helmet no less, in that matter is bush league. Donovan Smith should be fined exorbitantly and suspended for a game.

8. What’s left to be said? Gardner Minshew is a magician. Prepare his bust in Canton.

9. Another pet peeve: returners bringing the ball out of the end zone. They rarely get back to the 25 yard line and they’re taking a chance on a turnover or penalty. I’m baffled special teams coordinators aren’t beating it into these guys’ brains to take a knee. The days of returners housing kickoffs are over. Save yourselves the embarrassment, and me the energy I use yelling at the television.

10. Russell Wilson was glorious Thursday night, leading the Seahawks to a huge division victory against the Rams. Wilson, perennially underrated by fans and media members alike, is requiring us to consider him as an early MVP candidate. Overcoming a shoddy defense, Rusty’s Seahawks are inching toward contender status. The quarterback has joined Patrick Mahomes in the “Must See TV” category.